One of the most famous modern Italian novels is Christ Stopped At Eboli. Set in the 1930s, it is the true story of the anti-fascist Carlo Levi, who was exiled from the highly industrialised city of Turin to a small village in the deep south.
Despite the huge cultural gap between him and the villagers, Levi strove to understand and appreciate them — “No one has come to this land except as an enemy, a conqueror, or a visitor devoid of understanding.”
Some 70 years later, these areas of southern Italy have new enemies. Italy has seen the shifting of production to areas of high unemployment and weak trade unions.
But recently the bosses’ side in Italy has had some nasty surprises, most of them delivered by the engineering union FIOM.
Over the last 20 years Italy’s largest private company, the car giant Fiat, has closed down factories in the militant north and opened new ones in small towns in the south.
Giuseppe Cillis, one of the leaders of the successful 2004 Fiat Melfi strike, explained the background:
“When they opened the factory in 1993, they didn’t think they’d have any problems, given that there wasn’t a strong trade union tradition.
“Here in Basilicata employment rates are around 20 percent. Before it opened, they had 100,000 applications for 7,000 jobs — and given the corruption in southern Italy, some people probably got a job because of who they knew.
“They planned this factory as an experiment. They wanted to imitate the Japanese system with all its ‘just in time’ production and work management methods.”
When workers started to make demands, the company responded through widespread use of disciplinary measures. The workforce of 5,000 had experienced 9,000 disciplinary procedures during 2001-4.
This regime broke down in April 2004. Production had been decentralised through the creation of many small component suppliers.
A mood of militancy and awareness of the company’s weakness had emerged a few weeks earlier when a strike by car transporter drivers forced Fiat to quickly lay off many production line workers.
Then Fiat workers walked out, mounting mass pickets at factory gates. Their work contract hadn’t been renewed and workers hated the double nightshift system, which didn’t exist in northern factories.
Shift rates were also 15 percent lower in Melfi than in the north. Women workers were forced to work these shifts.
“I think they deliberately chose to employ an high number of women,” says Giuseppe. “Nationally only 4-5 percent of car factory workers are female, yet in Melfi it’s 20 percent.”
With their sexist view of female passivity Fiat bosses must have thought they had things sewn up.
But as Giuseppe says, “Instead when the strike started women went for the jugular. Men often hang back, discussing and defining things — but the women didn’t hang about asking questions. Overall it was a consequence of all they had suffered over ten years.”
The company was damaged immediately — after just three days there was a mile long queue of lorries parked outside — either car transporters waiting to load finished cars or lorries waiting to unload materials.
The following day two shifts at Fiat’s Sicilian factory, 1,400 workers, were laid off, and Fiat responded by sending helicopters into the blockaded plant to remove vital machinery.
The pickets were having a real impact, and a sure sign of this was a police attack on them on the seventh day of strike action.
As soon as the news came through the few remaining workers at the Mirafiori factory in Turin walked out, while workers at the Alfa Romeo factory in Milan went out and sat down on the motorway for an hour in protest.
FIOM organised a national strike of its members within 48 hours of the attack.
Fiat had lost 50,000 cars due to the strike, and it quickly conceded significant pay rises and the abolition of the double night shift by 2006.
The strike was a brilliant illustration of the fact that workers’ fear of management can suddenly evaporate. But it also shows that industrial unions, far from being “dinosaurs”, can enthusiastically win the support of young workers with little tradition of trade unionism.
It also shows that most modern companies are highly vulnerable after just a few strike days. But FIOM’s success cannot just be explained by militant action — it also comes from where it positions itself politically.
As Lello Raffo, national organiser for car factories explains, “Our key move was our slogan at our 1996 conference — ‘independence’.”
This was during the centre left government of Romano Prodi, who could return as Italy’s prime minister at the next election.
“This meant ‘independence’ from the government and from the party system,” says Lello. “But we’re very political, very politicised. We’re about class struggle and being involved in all levels of society.”
An example of this occurred five months before the Melfi strike, at the nearby town of Scanzano. The government announced that the country’s nuclear waste would be located in one of the nation’s poorest and remotest towns.
The whole community demonstrated, blocking all railway lines and motorways for days on end.
Giuseppe Cillis says, “We took part in all the road blocks, occupations and debates. We put up notices inside the Melfi factory encouraging workers to take part. We also held a four hour political strike against it.
“We blockaded the factory stopping all deliveries. We also demonstrated outside management’s office demanding that Fiat, the country’s most important private company, come out publicly against the idea.” A few weeks later the government backed off.
This solidarity was then repaid during the dispute the following year. Melfi workers got massive support from local communities.
FIOM scored another victory last month against Fiat in another remote town near Pescara, where the Ducato van is produced. Demands here were very similar to Melfi — equal pay with other Fiat workplaces. The company was again vulnerable after just a few days of strikes.
As Lello Raffo explains, “The key moment came when we stopped production on the Saturday night shift by picketing. Fiat immediately began to run out of stocks of the Ducato and wanted to negotiate.”
There were 5,000 permanent workers and 500 on temporary contracts at the Pescara plant — a perfect set-up for management to try and get a scab operation going during strikes.
FIOM takes the involvement of temporary workers very seriously
“Whenever we enter negotiations one of our first and most important demands is giving permanent jobs to temporary workers,” says Lello. “We started to involve temporary workers by calling mass meetings of all workers.”
FIOM has won again, but not just on wages — from next year the 500 temporary workers will become permanent. FIOM has roughly 300,000 members and high levels of recruitment.
As Giuseppe Cillis says, “We might be 100 years old but we don’t belong to ancient history. We’re a dinosaur only in terms of our size.”
Lello Raffo will be speaking at Marxism 2005. A DVD on the Melfi strike will also be shown at the event, followed by a question and answer session with Giuseppe Cillis. Go to www.marxism2005.net